Obituary: Terry 'Tubesteak' Tracy / Personified attitude of 1950s Calif. surfer

March 13, 1935 - Aug. 22, 2012

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In 1956, Terry "Tubesteak" Tracy, freshly fired from his job at a downtown Los Angeles insurance company, bid goodbye to the 9-to-5 life and headed for the Malibu shore, where he built himself a shack out of wood scraps and palm fronds and sailed into surfing history.

He was, according to surfing historian Matt Warshaw, a decent surfer, but his ticket to glory wasn't what he did on a board: It was the aesthetic he embraced. Mr. Tracy, better known by the nickname "Tubesteak," was the personification of the rebellious surf subculture that emerged in California in the late 1950s. He was an anti-authoritarian sage in Wayfarer shades and Madras shorts who made bumming on the beach the essence of cool and an irresistible draw for a girl he called Gidget.

An impresario of Malibu beach when it became the most famous surf break in the world, Mr. Tracy died Wednesday at his home in San Clemente, Calif., of complications of diabetes, said his wife, Phyllis. He was 77.

Although he hadn't ridden the waves in decades, he was revered as an elder statesman of the surfing world, known in later years for the articles he wrote about the crazy parties and beach pranks that became, Surfer's Journal publisher Steve Pezman wrote in a tribute, "anthems to true surfer style."

The burly bohemian was holding court outside his Malibu shack in the summer of '56 when a petite teenager named Kathy Kohner wandered by to borrow a surfboard. Five feet tall and 95 pounds, she reminded Mr. Tracy of a teensy girl he once met who had been dubbed Gidget, a mash-up of "girl" and "midget." Inspired by the memory, Mr. Tracy later said, he called Ms. Kohner that -- and the name stuck.

When she told her screenwriter father, Frederick Kohner, about the characters she met on the beach, he turned her stories into a novel, "Gidget, the Little Girl with Big Ideas," published in 1957.

With the release of the 1959 movie, which starred Sandra Dee as the title character and featured Cliff Robertson as a Tracy-inspired shack-dweller named the Big Kahuna, the surfer lifestyle blazed by Mr. Tracy and others exploded into popular culture, giving rise to a slew of sequels ("Gidget Goes Hawaiian," "Gidget Goes to Rome"), musical groups such as the Beach Boys, and a popular 1960s sitcom starring Sally Fields as the fun-and-sun-loving pixie.

Although Mr. Tracy claimed the distinction, Ms. Kohner isn't sure he was the first surfer to call her Gidget. "I didn't write it down in my diary, so it's up for grabs," she said. But what is certain, she said, was that "we've lost one of the legends of Malibu. He just embodied surf culture." And unlike other Malibu regulars, he was kind to newcomers.

The son of a Shell oil company worker and a housewife, Mr. Tracy was born in Los Angeles on March 13, 1935. A football player of some promise, he attended Santa Monica City College but, unable to resist the allure of the beach, dropped out after a year.

At 15 he was surfing regularly at San Onofre State Beach, where he met Miki Dora, whose graceful surfing style would make him a hero of the sport.

According to Mr. Tracy's wife, he received his colorful nickname from Ms. Dora, who died of cancer at 67 in 2002. Mr. Tracy gave various explanations for the name. Sometimes he said Tubesteak was slang for a hotdog, which in turn is slang for a showoff, which Mr. Tracy often was. Other times he said the name came from his working at a restaurant called Tubesteak's.

Regardless of the origin, it was, say those who knew him, the perfect moniker for a surfing chieftain with a wry sense of humor and flair for performance.

Mr. Tracy left Malibu in the late 1950s after a lifeguard berated him for lighting a fire to melt wax for his board. By then he had a family to support and held a number of occupations over the years, including driving a truck and selling real estate.

He stopped surfing in 1980 when he developed a painful swelling in one of his feet.


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